WORDS AND IMAGE: DANIELLE COHEN '18
I ventured into the bizarrely Floridian humid rain last Wednesday night to hear Elif Batuman read her humorous, candid reflections on traveling, Russian literature, and luggage loss.
A staff writer at The New Yorker, Batuman maintains an incredibly humble demeanor, her sentences often dissolving into self-conscious bouts of chuckling. After an introduction by Sawney Hirsh, who affirmed that “we should all learn to travel like Elif Batuman,” she took over, opening by expressing her gratitude and excitement to be back at Wesleyan for the second time. (She blessed Downey House with her charming non-fiction back in May of 2014.)
Batuman maintains close connections to three somewhat disjointed countries: Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Her parents came from Turkey to America as adults, and she spent her graduate years studying Russian literature as well as the Uzbek language. On Wednesday, she read excerpts from a chapter called “Who Killed Tolstoy?” that appears in her most recent (and first) book, Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
Batuman mentioned before reading the excerpts that she’s in the process of writing a new book called The Idiot, which she comically calls a “semi-autobiographical novel.” She then warned audience members that her reading would be slightly rocky –- she had unintentionally thrown out her own copy of her book and was therefore reading from an Australian copy that was missing all her personal marks and notes.
As suggested by the chapter’s title, the excerpts she read recalled a trip she made to Tolstoy’s house for the International Tolstoy Conference, to which she had been accepted on the basis of a paper that investigated what she believed was the murder of Leo Tolstoy. Batuman was given a grant to present the paper, whose title called it “a forensic investigation,” at the conference, where she met a number of oddball academics who had dedicated their entire lives to studying Russian literature in all its discriminate details.
One of the best parts of Batuman’s humor is its slightly self-effacing quality: She was one of these outlandishly zealous scholars, having come to the conference to present a paper, and yet she’s able to acknowledge the absurdity of their conversations: She described one man at dinner recounting his attempts to study the margins of Tolstoy’s books on Kant, and reporting that he found absolutely zero notes there, but, as he claimed, “the books fell open to certain pages!”
There’s a tone Batuman strikes in her work that makes it profoundly accessible, articulating certain aspects of life that one could not have put better oneself, such as the assertion, “Air travel is like death. Everything is taken from you.” She refashions the hideously mundane parts of life into well-crafted writing, from losing one’s suitcase en route to a professional conference to tolerating groups of eccentric academics.
Batuman’s writing is a complex welding of various identities, locations, and cultures, all told with a polish of good humor that renders it both pleasurable and captivating to read. It was a welcome relief from the rainy midterm chaos to find solace in her words at Russell House this week.